Local Nurse Practitioner recalls her time volunteering in the Navajo Nation

Navajo Nation nearing herd immunity as 70 percent of the population receives at least first vaccine dose.

PITTSBURG, Kan. – Patricia Ridings knows a thing or two about caring for underserved communities.

“I worked in some rural health clinics, where that’s their only healthcare for miles and miles around,” says Ridings.

She’s been a nurse practitioner for the last decade, and has her own family medicine clinic in Pittsburg.

Last year, at the height of the pandemic, she had the chance to put that experience to use.

“We had a disaster in our own nation, our own country, that was needing help,” says Ridings.

A few months into the year, she started working with COVID Care Force, a volunteer group made up of healthcare professionals going to the parts of the country hit the hardest by the pandemic. She went to New York for two week, then less than a week after returning to Pittsburg, she left again for Gallup, New Mexico to help the Navajo Nation.

In May of 2020, the nation had one of the highest infection rates per capita — and one of the highest death rates in the country.

“There were tents outside. Makeshift hospitals extending the ability of the Gallup hospital to take patients. And they opened the High school and were creating negative airflow rooms for patients at the high school,” explains Ridings. “They were begging for nurses. They needed ER doctors, I mean they needed help… boots on the ground everywhere.”

The group she was a part of delivered hundreds of masks and supplies to those already fighting in the nation, and helped delivery water to residents who couldn’t leave their homes — but didn’t have running water.

She describes a healthcare system that was stressed to the breaking point.

“We had just come from New York, so we shared our experience and some of the things that they needed to prepare for,” says Ridings. “Sadly… horrifically, body bags. Do you have body bags? Do you have refrigerator trucks? I mean, that’s something we don’t want to think about, but they were really in the middle of a storm and it was just growing.”

Now, almost a year later, volunteers with COVID Care Force are still in New Mexico but their focus has shifted to vaccinations. Something that’s paid off, as more than 70 percent of the tribe’s population has received at least their first dose of vaccine.

“It makes me very happy to see the progress they’ve made and that they’ve had some victories through it. They still, you know, are kind of in my heart. So yeah, hopefully I made a difference,” says Ridings.

Now, as she cares for patients in Pittsburg, Ridings looks at an arrow from the nation that’s on the wall of her office… a reminder of the part she played in helping a community weather the storm.

“I think the message, especially for that population, that culture, is perseverance.”

On Thursday the Navajo Nation reported there were no COVID related deaths for the 11th time in the last 12 days.